Review Dated: 8th, January 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 10/10 [ Breathtaking ]
Total Score: 68
Average Score: 6.18
The biggest and most pleasant surprise of the d20 Dungeons and Dragons revival, for me, has been Ravenloft. Everything I had heard about the setting before just put me off, it seemed to be the heaven for power gamers and twits.
It was like the secret power-up level hidden away near the end of some beat ‘em up computer game poorly masquerading as a computer RPG. Needless to say, I never really had much time for the previous edition of Ravenloft.
When my copy of the third edition rules Ravenloft arrived and I flicked through it I was not impressed. It arrived at the same time as the wonderfully colourful Oriental Adventues and Forgotten Realms and in comparison Ravenloft seemed drab and dull. I should know not to be such a swift judge.
The book starts off dangerously. The authors decide to tell you a little of the history behind the Gothic genre. I found myself thinking dry thoughts about White Wolf fan-boy writers, and White Wolf do hold the end of the Ravenloft reigns.
The hideous miscomprehensions many gamers have about just what “Gothic” really is cannot entirely be laid at White Wolf’s feet but a great deal of it should settle there. I wasn’t really surprised when the Arthaus crew made a beeline towards trying to teach me the truths behind the Gothic genre. Yes, yes, yes, I remember thinking; I know this already. I might even have time to start formulating smug thoughts about just how much I knew already when the information I didn’t already know started to appear in the introductory paragraphs.
Before I knew what was going on the authors had given me a clearer image of just what gothic horror actually is.
This was absolutely perfect. I was already beginning to admit that Ravenloft was growing on me. That said, I can see the same study of the history of the gothic novel that so captured my attention boring the socks off some fourteen-year-old kid.
I really like the way the mysteries and uber powers of the Dread Realms are explained in the book; that is to say, they’re not really explained. I can see disagreements between this reviewer and the same fourteen-year-old Games Master who must have the statistics for absolutely every game effect at hand.
The eerie Mists that surround the pocket domains that compose the Dread Realms remain eerie Mists. The heroes can’t wander around through the Mists because, well, they just can’t. Tough. Live with it. Sure, there are some suggestions as to why this is so but you’re not given something silly like a DC of 101 to check against in order to make the attempt.
Essentially the writers bite the bullet and draw a line over certain aspects of the game in order to try and preserve the, you guessed it, gothic horror of the realm. It works. By George, it works.
Ravenloft is different. It is Dungeons and Dragons, yes, kinda, but I really did feel as if it was an entirely different approach. I really liked Oriental Adventures but that was just D&D in a different setting. Ravenloft feels like something else; it feels like Ravenloft.
I love the way they’ve subtly changed the magic system, the effects of the spells, rather. It is easy to create the undead but not so easy to control them. If you wield horrible spells in the Dread Realms then you run the risk of being noticed by even more horrible powers.
Ravenloft manages to calmly sit on powerful heroes and still keep the game as calm and as subtle as any gothic horror should be.
I think they handle the fantasy race problem too. The fantasy races could easily have been a problem in Ravenloft. How could you run a scenario where the Scotland Yard equivalent scoffed at the idea that Jack the Ripper (read: Bloody Jack) was anything supernatural if elves and dwarves were everyday occasions in the city.
Some of the fantasy races do occur in Ravenloft, other common PC types (orcs, for example) can be explained. In some of the domains, they are known but rare and in other realms, they are In-Game persecuted and therefore unknown.
The resulting effect is that if you warp in a party from your fantasy game there will not be too much chaos from the appearance of non-humans but yet if you run a Ravenloft only campaign you can easily concentrate on humans only (but still have that mad old woodsman believe that other beings live in the forests).
The wealth of geographic and political information in the core Ravenloft is a welcome blessing. There is enough information on the many different “countries” in the Realm to keep you happy.
It isn’t a token offering from a writer who would rather use the page space to include a few more monsters or magic items. I really liked it but in the interest of trying to present a level review, I should say that if you’re more of a face-paced action Gamer then you might very well skim through this large section without noticing such details as the different building styles used by the different domains.
I think if you are only interested in high fantasy, serious butt-kicking then Ravenloft is perhaps not for you… although it could easily handle, say, a survival horror undead hack’n’slash fest. Ravenloft is better suited to the slyer player and Games Master.
I said that when I flicked through the book that I was disappointed. There isn’t anything really fancy in it that jumps out and grabs your attention. There’s nothing to rival the visual mastery of the bestiary in Oriental Adventures.
This doesn’t mean the book is badly laid out though, in fact, I found Ravenloft easy to read and with sensible typesetting. You won’t find yourself trying to read a tiny column of text that has been squeezed down the side of a picture and the centre of the book.
You won’t find yourself wondering what the side panel of game stats has to do with the descriptive text on the page either. Not that everything is perfect; I did spot a few errors and sometimes had to squint to read the atmospheric intros of every chapter.
There’s more. You get the new gipsy race… except, of course, they’re not called gipsy. There is extra information about a number of the most likely monsters for the Dread Realms.
Importantly, there is a wonderful Cultural Level system. This allows you to have one game set with black powder technology, this allows you to have one game with a Frankenstein level of science and then move to a different part of the Dread Realms to try your luck in an ancient Egyptian setting.
My only criticism is that sometimes the rip-offs from famous gothic / nearly gothic novels are too obvious. In an RPG that manages so much in terms of rejuvenation those clichés that do stand out as rather too pale are even more glaring than the might otherwise be.
What are your thoughts? Strike up a discussion and leave a comment below.